Share this article

print logo

Oscar speech spotlights gender pay gap

WASHINGTON – Two houses, 14 cars, or 37 years of family meals: That’s what the inequality in earnings between women and men can end up costing a woman over her lifetime, according to analysis by the Center for American Progress.

Actress Patricia Arquette cast a spotlight on this issue Sunday night in her acceptance speech for the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, where she called for wage equality and equal rights for women.

As Arquette suggested, the pay gap has serious economic implications. Working women can’t afford as much education, housing, transportation, food and health care for themselves and their families as working men.

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” proclaimed Arquette, whose Oscar-winning role was as a working mother. “It is our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”

But she didn’t just say “women.” She said “every woman who gave birth.” And that speaks to a pretty important distinction in the wage-inequality research: There’s not so much a gender pay gap as there is a motherhood pay gap. And there’s new research all the time explaining why it persists.

Women make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But when you break that down, the situation looks a lot better for women who have never married – those women only make 5 percent less than single men. Childless women, meanwhile, make 7 percent less than single men.

Statistics compiled by University of Massachusetts sociology professor Michelle Budig for the centrist think tank Third Way compared women’s weekly earnings in 2012 with men’s in various categories:

• Ages 25-34 – 90 percent.

• Ages 35-44 – 78 percent.

• Never married – 96 percent.

• Married – 77 percent.

• Formerly married – 83 percent.

• Married parent – 76 percent.

• Single parent – 83 percent.

What’s more, while the overall gender wage gap has been shrinking in the United States, the discrepancy for mothers has been growing, and it gets wider with every additional child.

One reason for this: The cost of day care for two kids can make it more cost-effective for one parent to stay home, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and it’s usually not going to be the father. The effect may be more pronounced among low-income mothers, who show a larger wage gap than high-earning women.

There’s pretty extensive research on why the motherhood pay gap is still so vast. Perhaps, most obviously, women have to take time off for pregnancies and often return to reduced hourly schedules after giving birth – that accounted for a large difference in earnings for graduates of a top U.S. business school. More subtly, there’s evidence that women are more likely to accept nonmonetary compensation for jobs – predominantly, good health insurance – which lowers the wage number. And discrimination plays a role, too: A psychological experiment found that people are likely to rate mothers as less competent and committed to their work than non-mothers in ways that affect hiring and promotion decisions (fathers received no such skepticism).

Last week, it was learned just how thoroughly the wage gap is wired into the nature of parenthood. Looking at the decline in fertility in China after the imposition of the one-child policy, researchers reported in Emerald Insight found that the gender wage gap closed, as well.

Potential solutions to the motherhood penalty are well-known: Paid parental leave, universal prekindergarten and child tax credits, to name a few. Arquette probably didn’t have time to go into them in her speech.

But maybe next time, an actress – or actor – could use that platform to go beyond the problem and ask for something specific to fix it.